What Is Square & How Does It Work?
We at Merchant Maverick like Square. It’s a great service that opens up the ability to process credit card payments to many small businesses, and we’ve written a lot of articles about Square’s point of sale, payment processing, inventory, booking, and invoicing features. These articles can be prohibitively in-depth to the uninitiated, however, so you might want to read this quick overview of Square for a summary before digging into the details.
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A Brief History Of Square
Square was founded in 2009 when Jack Dorsey (also of Twitter) tried to help his friend Jim McKelvey take a credit card payment of $2,000.00. Square’s first product was a magnetic stripe credit card reader that could be inserted into a smartphone’s headphone jack to take credit card sales.
Square became a public company in November of 2015, and its stock is traded on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol SQ. While Square does bring in a lot of money ($3.3 billion for the year 2018), it still has not made a profit. For the moment, the company seems to be more focused on growing by adding new services for its customers.
While Square’s main focus continues to be helping small businesses quickly and easily set up taking credit card payments, it has also expanded its services to point of sale, inventory, and employee management — giving small businesses the ability to run more like large ones (more on these services below). To this end, it has bought the food delivery business Caviar, the catering service Zesty, and the website building service Weebly. It also owns a consumer-centric digital wallet called the Cash App, where users can send money to each other and even buy from any store with the money in the app.
In the span of about ten years, Square has grown from a startup focusing on one aspect of helping small businesses grow to a large business providing a suite of services that help small businesses expand. With so many additional services, what exactly does Square do these days?
What Does Square Do?
At its heart, Square is still a credit card processing aggregator (also sometimes called a third party payment processor or a payment service provider (PSP)). We have a great article on the difference between a merchant account provider and an aggregator, but below is a quick explanation.
Square’s Credit Card Processing Services
Traditionally, if you want your business to take credit card sales, you would work with a provider to set up something called a merchant account. To get a merchant account, you typically undergo a long application process and provide a lot of financial information before you are approved. These providers want to make sure that, based on your business’s existing history, you don’t present a huge financial risk.
Credit card processing aggregators take more of a see-as-we-go approach and assume financial risk for bad accounts. Aggregators merely need to verify the identity of the applicant before authorizing a new account, and generally don’t ask too much more information. They have more freedom on who they sign up and how they do business with those they sign up.
While this means aggregators can quickly set your business up to take credit card payments without needing an established history, they tend to be cautious afterwards. These types of payment processors have advanced systems in place to analyze each transaction for any red flags. Suspicious transactions can cause the processor to hold funds until it has more information. Worse, third-party processors often have a clause in the contract that says they can terminate your account if they see fit. Usually, this happens to businesses that have high numbers of chargebacks or fraudulent transactions.
Square is an aggregator, so essentially the above is its business model. You can sign up for Square within minutes and without providing detailed financial information. In addition, Square gives you a basic set of free hardware and software so you can start taking credit card payments almost right away. The free items include:
- Square Point Of Sale Software: Square’s free POS software is incredibly advanced for being free, though it’s certainly not a full-fledged POS. Still, for most small businesses it is more than sufficient. Square also offers premium iPad POS systems for a monthly fee if you need more advanced features.
- Credit Card Reader: You can get a basic magnetic strip reader for free, but if you want support for chip cards, you’ll have to upgrade to another reader, which will cost you.
- Invoicing: For those businesses that bill a larger amount but less often (e.g. lawn care services), Square offers an electronic invoicing function. The invoices are free to send, but you will pay a transaction fee when your customer pays with their card.
Square’s Value-Added Services
As mentioned earlier, Square has been adding more services to its core credit card processing business. Some of these services are for free, but others are available for a small fee. These services include:
- Team Management: With this service, you can manage your employees from anywhere. You can add new employees to the system, track their hours, track their register/sales (at either single location or multiple locations), edit and close employee timecards, and give selected employees selected access to various parts of this software (e.g. so they can enter their own hours but not see your weekly sales numbers).
- Payroll Services: Square’s payroll service imports data from Square’s team management software so that you can easily pay your employees and contractors. Square will handle tax filings and withholdings, and they can handle the payments to other employee benefits such as health insurance and 401(k). You can even offer direct deposit to your employees.
- Inventory Management: Square offers basic inventory management in its Point of Sale app for free, but the premium iPad POS systems offer a more detailed system that can track and analyze your business’s inventory across multiple stores and multiple registers. You are notified when inventory is low, and items are automatically removed from inventory when they’re sold, whether at one of your physical locations or online.
- Business Debit Card (Square Card): When you are paid by your customers through Square, the money goes to an account kept by Square. Rather than moving the money to your bank, you can use it immediately with the Square Card. The Square Card is a debit card sponsored by Mastercard, and you can request it from Square for free. Check out How Does Square’s Instant Deposit Work? for more information about how to access your funds.
- Appointments: Square provides a booking calendar for professional service businesses (like hair salons). The calendar not only tracks and moves appointments, but it can also send appointment reminders to customers. The POS and booking system is free for a single user, but if you have multiple users you’ll need to pay a monthly fee.
- Square Online Store: Pretty much every business needs an online presence, and Square can help you build a professional-looking website even if you’ve never done it before. Square provides tools that can help you track your inventory sold through your online store and helps you with shipping (printing labels, discounted rates). Best of all, when you sell out of state, it tracks all the different sales taxes that you might owe. There’s a basic free webstore, but if you need more advanced features, you’ll need to upgrade to one of the other plans.
- Other Services: Square offers many more services designed to make a small business owner’s life easier. For instance, Square offers marketing software to help you build email and social media advertising campaigns. It has an installment payment service for certain businesses so that a customer can buy a big-ticket item and pay Square in installments while you get paid right away. Square can help you build a loyalty program where customers can redeem goods or services with points. You can get your own branded gift cards to sell to your customers. Square even provides online store owners with a product photography service so that the items sold through webstores are presented in their best light.
As can be seen above, Square is well on its way to offering an entire suite of software and services that not only help you take credit card sales, but also help you manage your entire business’s operations.
What Are The Advantages of Square?
Every successful business has a few things it does extremely well, and Square is no exception. Square basically provides you with a free, fast, and easy-to-get-out-of way to start taking credit card sales. To elaborate a bit, the following are some advantages for signing up with Square:
- Fast Setup: You can sign up for Square within minutes and get a credit card reader shipped to you very quickly.
- Easy Termination: If you sign up and find that you don’t like Square, you can stop working with Square any time you want. There are no penalties for leaving, so you can sign up without fear. (There may be loose ends to tie up, but you can still terminate the services at will.)
- Easy To Use: Square is focused on small businesses that are just starting out. They provide a simple piece of hardware and intuitive software to help you run your business and help you grow.
- Simple Fee Structure: Compared with other pricing models, Square has an easy-to-understand flat fee structure so you can better predict your profits.
- Fast Payment: With Square, you can get paid almost right away after a customer makes a charge. You can instantly deposit these funds into your outside account or use the funds directly with the Square Card debit card. In contrast, traditional merchant account providers typically hold the funds for at least 24 hours before releasing it to you. For a small business with tight cash flow, Square’s fast payment can make a difference to the business’s survival.
- No Minimums Or Monthly Fees: A small fee here and there might seem insignificant, but they can add up in the long run. Square’s credit card processing service (and a lot of their other services) have no minimum or monthly fees, so a small business doesn’t have to worry about paying for anything other than the transaction processing costs.
These are just some of the advantages for signing up with Square. Of course, no business is perfect, and neither is Square. Under some circumstances and for some types of businesses, Square is not the best option.
What Are The Disadvantages Of Square?
No business can be everything to everyone, so Square is not suitable for every type of business. One of the biggest complaints we see about Square is that Square sometimes withhold funds in a merchant’s account, with or without warning. Sometimes, you never get paid. If you fit into one of the categories below, you might want to think twice before signing up with Square:
- Not Suitable For High-Risk Businesses: A “high risk” business is usually defined as a business that deals with guns and ammo, tobacco and vaporizers, pharmaceuticals, gambling and financial services, and similar — anything highly regulated or prone to chargebacks and disputes. If you deal in any of these, Square is likely not the right business partner for you. Specifically, in its Terms of Service, Square reserves the right to terminate service if you violate any export control regulations (for example, sell military-grade items to specific countries) and money laundering laws, sell weapons or devices designed to cause physical harm, or “use the Services except as otherwise allowed” under their agreements.
- Not Suitable For Business With Many Chargebacks: If you have a business that causes a high rate of dispute or chargebacks (even if it’s not otherwise a high-risk business), then Square is probably not the right company for you. Going back to Square’s business model, it fronts you the money that you take from your customers so you can collect right away while it waits for the banks to settle the charges. So, if Square can’t eventually get the money from the banks, it might stop fronting you the money (put a hold on your account) or stop working with you altogether.
- Not The Best Pricing For High-Volume businesses: Despite its transparent pricing, Square might not be the cheapest service provider for your particular business. If your business is mature, you have an established financial history and are doing a consistently high volume of card payments, and you know how your customers tend to pay for your goods or services, then you might want to shop around a little more to find the merchant account provider that can offer you interchange-plus pricing and volume discounts. (That said, Square does negotiate custom rates for high-volume businesses, but you should absolutely shop around all the same.)
We have an article that gives more details on why Square is not suitable for high risk and high chargeback businesses. If you have an established business and wish to shop around, here’s some information on where you might be able to get a better deal.
What Are Square’s Fees?
Business owners like having predictable operating expenditures every month. Because credit card fees usually have a percentage component and a flat fee component, the cost of allowing credit card sales tend to be less predictable. Compared to traditional credit card processors, however, Square’s fees are easier to predict.
With Square, you usually only have to worry about just one fee, expressed in a percentage form. Right now, if you use Square’s free credit card reader and free Point of Sale software, you pay 2.6% + $0.10 of the sale. That’s it. If your customers choose to pay online, your rate is 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction. Having only to keep two numbers in mind makes it easier for you to figure out your markups so you can make a profit for your entire business.
Note, though, that if you use Square’s premium hardware or software, the charges can get a little complex. Here’s an article giving a more detailed breakdown of Square’s fees.
How Do You Use Square?
When it comes down to it, it’s fairly easy to start using Square’s services. You can do it in four steps:
- Sign Up For A Free Account. This only takes a few minutes, and we even have an article walking you through the process. You won’t have to provide a lot of financial information, and they won’t do a credit check on you at this stage (they will later, after you’re all set up).
- Get Your Free Square Reader. You’ll have quite a few hardware choices–some of which you will need to pay for–but there’s always one that’s free for either iOS or Android.
- Download The Free Square App. The app is called Square Point of Sale, and you will need this app to process payments through a mobile device.
- Log In To The Free Square Dashboard And Explore. This is a fairly robust piece of software that manages all your credit card charges. You can customize reporting in a centralized hub, and do much, much more (some of which cost extra). Here’s a Merchant Maverick article on the details of the dashboard.
As mentioned above, Square wants to help you run your business. There are a lot of value-added services they offer, so once you’re all set taking credit card sales, you might wish set aside a little time to explore these additional services to see how they can help you run your business.
What Kinds of Businesses Is Square Best For?
Square isn’t right for every business, but if your business is small or new, Square is very likely the best bet for you. With Square, you’ll get lots of free software, hardware, and add-ons to get you up and running very quickly. You can use Square on the web, at a brick-and-mortar store, and even at mobile locations such as food festivals.
We’ve compared Square with PayPal and Clover Go and believe Square really does offer the best value for the price for a start-up business. As long as you’re not one of the “high risk” businesses, you should have no problems getting payments from Square or with your account being abruptly suspended or terminated. Best of all, if you use Square and then after a while decide you don’t like them, you can stop using them at any time.
Is Square right for you? This more in-depth article can help you decide.